Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

What elements of high-quality pre-K programs help children achieve lasting academic success? The Robin Hood Foundation — along with two family foundations, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Overdeck Family Foundation — has financed a study to find out. The effort is part of the Robin Hood Foundation’s “poverty-fighting mission.”

Robin Hood’s research should yield new insights about how specific aspects of program quality contribute most to children’s positive outcomes.

Michael Weinstein, the chief program officer at Robin Hood, and a former New York Times journalist, told the Times, “He was interested in the promise of early childhood education to fight poverty, but unsatisfied by the existing research, which did not provide clear guidance as to which programs were the most cost effective.”

“We pride ourselves, correctly or not, in having an evidentiary basis for making the grants we do,” Weinstein told the Times. He described Robin Hood’s approach as “one of ‘relentless benefit-cost calculations.’”

“The study involving the children in Brooklyn, who attend Public School 221 in Crown Heights, will gauge whether a certain math curriculum can create lasting improvement in students’ math and language skills, as well as their likelihood to

persevere in the face of academic challenges,” the New York Times article explains. The study “will track roughly 4,000 children who enter prekindergarten in 69 schools and community-based organizations next fall, and continue following them through at least the third grade.”

The Times describes one of the preschool classrooms that the study is looking at, noting, “The teacher held up a card with a number on it, then looked at the 4-year-olds waving their hands eagerly in front of her. ‘Anderson,’ she said, calling on a small boy in a blue button-up shirt and a sweater vest.

“‘Five,’ Anderson said, correctly.

“‘Good boy, Anderson,’ the teacher said. Then she turned to the rest of the class. ‘Are you ready?’ she said, and then, ‘Go!’ At that, the children jumped up and down five times as they counted: ‘One! Two! Three! Four! Five!’”

The curriculum being used in this classroom and throughout the study is Building Blocks, which the Robin Hood Foundation said it chose for two reasons: first, evidence demonstrated that Building Blocks raised “math skills in young children,” and second, Building Blocks could be introduced “at scale,” eliminating the need to “develop, test, refine and re-test something entirely new.”

The foundation adds, “Highly credible research points to early math skills as powerfully predictive of academic achievement (in both language arts and math) in elementary school, and persistent math problems predict key adult outcomes, including high school and college graduation rates.”

The Times echoes the point, noting research which indicates that “preschool math skills were a good predictor not only of math achievement but also of reading ability in elementary school, as well as graduation from high school and college attendance. In addition, studies suggest that prekindergarten teachers currently spend little time on math.”

“To ensure that the teachers in the study are using the curriculum correctly,” the Times explains, teachers are being trained, and coaches visit them weekly.

“While Robin Hood is hardly a natural ally of the de Blasio administration, the research it is financing could end up providing important information for officials in New York City and elsewhere trying to design high-quality prekindergarten programs,” the Times explains.

The foundation says it will “disseminate its results widely to policy makers, researchers and other stakeholders.”

For New York City, the timing is particularly good. The recently passed New York State budget provides the city with $300 million for a major expansion of its pre-K program.

As the Times explained last month, “The mayor had sought about $340 million for the prekindergarten expansion, which would offer free full-day classes to 4-year-olds; the budget pact allocates that much money for the entire state, with most of it designated for the city.”

The Robin Hood Foundation’s research on pre-K math stands to help New York and the nation learn more about the power of preschool.